Director Aviva Kempner has delivered another triumph that transcends its subject. Like Kempner's documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998), which covered the career of baseball's first Jewish superstar player, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg starts with an ethnic subject. Gertrude Berg was the electronic media's first female Jewish writer/producer; she had never been a star on-stage or in film before, but rather sprung whole and new in radio in late 1929 with her most successful creation, The Rise of the Goldbergs, later shortened simply to The Goldbergs. In one incarnation or another, including a 1950 feature film from Paramount, the Goldbergs were part of American popular culture for much of the next 27 years, until 1956.
The fact that she was Jewish was essential to who Gertrude Berg was and what The Goldbergs as a series was -- it also made her one of the Jewish community's most important emissaries to the rest of America, presenting a modern image of the wife and mother and the urban Jewish family. This was all happening at a time in which anti-Semitism was not only fully abroad in the land, but encouraged by some leading political figures of the time. She was a great deal like Hank Greenberg, as a Jewish American who was appealing enough to be accepted into the homes of Americans who had no Jewish friends or neighbors -- in Greenberg's case through his talent for baseball and his demeanor, and in her case for her loving, outgoing, accessible persona onscreen as Molly Goldberg. She was also liked and popular as a figure on the radio and on television in a time when a lot of Americans still harbored suspicion, or even fear, of Jewish people. The irony behind the documentary is that Berg had no larger social agenda; the film reveals her to be a woman who aspired to write and act after enduring a lonely and isolated childhood, emotionally neglected by a mother who never got over the death of her son (and was later institutionalized for what would now be defined as severe chronic depression), who created for herself the role of the ideal wife and mother.
That the public responded in kind spoke to her abilities as a writer, actress, and producer -- Berg wrote over 12,000 scripts for The Goldbergs, and handled casting and chose directors and crew members, and knew what she wanted, and it was popular for a quarter of a century (a creator/producer like Dick Wolf should only have such luck with Law & Order, and he doesn't act in that, or write all of the scripts). The participants in the documentary include a surprising number of co-stars and supporting players from The Goldbergs who lived into the early 21st century, and were interviewed by Kempner just in time. And there are the admirers, among them producer Norman Lear, screenwriter Gary David Goldberg, and United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. One also discovers that Gertrude Berg and The Goldbergs had admirers in the African-American community, and the Greek-American community, and among more recent Jewish immigrants whose experiences did not parallel Berg's life as a first-generation American; apparently, as radio's only regularly appearing family of immigrant and first-generation Americans, they were embraced by listeners and viewers of all origins, and doubly so by those audience members who were immigrants, or the first-generation descendants of immigrants. Apparently, everything that Gertrude Berg did came from the heart; there was no calculation in her work or her way of conducting her life and career, even when it came to the financially and politically risky step of fighting against the blacklist on behalf of Phillip Loeb, her co-star as Molly Goldberg's husband, who was victimized by the Red Scare and ultimately destroyed by his inability to find work. That fight cost Berg as well, who disappeared from television after The Goldbergs ended in 1956, some 28 years after it started on radio.
Kempner successfully delves into all of these different threads, including religion, personal background, family stresses, and a considerable amount of psychology that led Berg to create The Goldbergs and her screen alter ego, Molly Goldberg. Along the way, we're treated to a panorama of history. The Goldbergs wasn't a "topical" show in the manner of All in the Family or The Baxters (both series associated with Norman Lear), but Berg did use it as a vehicle to address the most troubling sides of life in the 1930s, including the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitism, and the aftermath of the Second World War. Some of the audio clips of her work are amazing, but what makes this movie most astonishing -- even more so than the way in which Berg disappeared from popular culture after 1956, despite winning a Tony Award for her performance on Broadway in A Majority of One -- is how funny the material still is. The performances, the humor, and the characters are ageless, and the film is very moving as well. This is a documentary that ought to be taken in more than once, if one is to fully appreciate the participants, the narrative, the history, and the story (actually, several stories) being told.